With his red hair almost matching the color of the intensely heated metal, Jason RoTramel hit the material using a hammer with great force, gradually forming the red-hot metal into a horseshoe. Sometimes sparks flew. Another time, he caused a sizzling sound when putting the shoe in liquid in a nearby barrel.
He appeared confident, knowing exactly what he was doing? putting the metal into the hot coals to get it searing, grabbing it out of the heat with the proper tools, putting it on the anvil and pounding it into shape. At times, he carved needed holes in the horseshoe with one hammer blow at a time.
It only took the Sedgwick resident about 20 minutes to make a horseshoe on a chilly winter afternoon at his shop at Star Stables in Valley Center. Star Stables has boarding stables, and they run a therapeutic riding program for kids and adults. It?s owned by Mike and Vickie Scraper, who invited RoTramel to set up shop there.
RoTramel is a farrier, which is a specialized blacksmith, he said. The word ?farrier? comes from the original word for iron, which is ?ferrous.?
?I shoe horses,? the 40-year-old said. ?I specialize in therapeutic and performance horses.? His business is called Vagabond Farrier.
However, he said he prefers to cater to people with pet horses??everyday horses people just enjoy.?
?If I could get my practice to pets and backyard horses, I?d be tickled pink,? RoTramel said. He pointed out, however, not all farriers are blacksmiths these days with people being able to purchase manufactured horseshoes.
?Those of us who take the traditional path?you just get to the point where you?re not really satisfied with what?s on the shelf,? RoTramel said.
In fact, there now are as many horseshoe companies as there are tennis shoe companies for humans, he said. He also said he can make a customized horseshoe in the same time it takes to modify a manufactured horseshoe.
Traditional farriers who make their own horseshoes are only limited by their skill and imagination, RoTramel said. The highest level of certification with the American Farriers Association is being able to build a barshoe to fit and shoeing a horse with four handmade shoes in less than two hours.
When he makes horseshoes, RoTramel customizes them to the horse?s foot and the horse?s job.
?Every horseshoe is a combination of elements,? he said. ?And every foot is a little bit different.?
Some horses? feet are larger than others. For example, RoTramel has made shoes for Clydesdales, which are quite large animals. Other shoes he?s made are much smaller. Shoes for cowboy horses require traction on both sides and safety traction on the inside. Some horses need more steel than others, which makes the horseshoes thicker and wider.
?There?s a massive number of options available if you fabricate your shoes by hand,? RoTramel said. He wants horse owners to know quality hoof care throughout the animals? lives will keep the horses sound exponentially, especially as they get older.
Being a traditional farrier doesn?t just involve making the horseshoes, it also requires putting the shoes on the horse. Sometimes, horses are brought into the shop, while other times, RoTramel goes to the horses.
?Anything we can do in the shop we can do in the field,? he said. ?It?s everybody?s dream to work out of the shop. The quality of work we can deliver is directly related to our work environment.?
Sometimes the work environment in the field is great?like when RoTramel will go to a farm that has a special shoeing area set up, usually consisting of concrete and mats. Sometimes, the work environment isn?t optimum, like when he has to work in a muddy driveway.
Even so, he?s quite passionate about his career, and his interest in horses started when he was a child.
?I kinda always thought I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up, and there didn?t seem to be quality hoof care available,? RoTramel said. ?Too many cowboy movies, and I became a horse-crazy kid.?
Although he wasn?t raised with horses, RoTramel bought horses right after high school, and he couldn?t find anybody to work on the horses? feet, so he decided to learn.
?So just kinda being who I am, I just set about to learn how to do it,? he said.
One thing led to another, and he was shoeing horses for friends and friends of friends. He developed an interest in working with crippled horses, and people learned he had a knack for that.
?In response to that, I had to start learning anatomy and biomechanics,? RoTramel said.
It?s easy to get excited about the traditional aspects of the trade, RoTramel said, but ?there?s a lot of modern science and innovation that goes into our trade too.?
Because of his work with lame horses, RoTramel was recruited to do work with stem cell research through Wichita Equine and Sports Medicine under the direction of veterinarian Dr. Hickman.
?I was the primary farrier for the research team,? he said.
RoTramel will present on that topic at the Inter?national Hoof Care Summit in January in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Through the research, they determined there is a place for stem cell medicines and that they?re pretty effective in treating lame horses. However, it?s difficult to prove how effective it is because there?s no money available for high-level research, RoTramel said.
?With the stem cell, we?re able to heal a lot more of these horses than before,? he said.
RoTramel also is doing a study, in cooperation with local veterinarians, for a new stem cell company on the safety and efficacy of a new stem cell product available?about how effective stem cells are in treating lame horses and injury. These are the kinds of horses that would have been put down or retired in the past, he said.
RoTramel currently is focusing on his career, which has spanned more than 20 years since he started shoeing horses in 1993. He is building up an apprenticeship program. As of Dec. 29, he had four apprentices. In the past, two apprentices have been females.
?It?s not uncommon for women to work in that trade, and it?s not uncommon for them to excel,? RoTramel said.
?Part of the mastery of the trade is to learn how to pass the skills onto the next generation,? RoTramel said.
Part of why he?s building an apprenticeship program is to contribute to continuing education. It takes a lifetime of study if a farrier wants to build any kind of mastery in the trade, RoTramel said.
His program is set up where the apprentices go back and forth from working with RoTramel for up to a week and then going back to their work.
?Farriers can continue their education?and simultaneously built up their own practice,? he said.
A farrier also can?t get to the point when he or she doesn?t have a mentor, but if you do, you?re sliding back, RoTramel said.
?You don?t retire,? he said. ?It gets in your blood.?
If a farrier can?t get under horses anymore, he or she can focus on passing along knowledge.
Gaining knowledge is how RoTramel has continued his trade. He?s a certified journeyman farrier through the American Farriers Association; there?s only one other CJF in the area?Patrick Dutton?who practices around the Wichita area, RoTramel said.
RoTramel works on horses in a wide geographical area, such as Oklahoma and Nebraska.
?In order to run a good practice, you end up covering a pretty wide area,? he said.
It?s also a good idea to have one?s area overlap with another farrier, which RoTramel does with Dutton, who is in his 20s, so they can have a good working relationship, help each other out and cover for each other if needed.
Recently, RoTramel and Dutton returned from a World Championship Blacksmiths competition in Florada.
?Patrick did better than I did,? RoTramel said, laughing.
Even so, RoTramel is an advanced skills farrier through the Farrier Inter?national Testing System. That is the highest level of certification they offer.
To pass, a person must be able to build every shoe on the list, which has 36 shoes. He or she must turn in at least seven of those shoes for evaluation, and every horseshoe element is in the list of shoes.
RoTramel also did an apprenticeship with Oak?ridge Equine Hospital, working with the resident farrier.
Currently, RoTramel is upping his game, working on a certification through the Worshipful Company of Farriers, a trade guild founded in 1605, which is one of the last trade guilds. RoTramel said the veterinarian profession was born out of that guild. He is studying to take the associate exam with that company, which is the highest level of examination. After that, a person has to write a thesis to attain Fellowship with the company.
The things RoTramel learns he passes on to his apprentices, such as teaching them the difference between being a mediocre and a good farrier is tool technique. His apprentices can do everything from basic horseshoeing certification to getting prepared for the highest levels of examination. RoTramel said he studies with the Five Star Horse?shoeing School of Minko, Okla.
?Being just good on the job is about speed and accuracy while also taking the time to not compromise,? RoTramel said.
by Wendy Nugent